Monday, January 11, 2016

How to Use Rejections to Improve Your Writing

Rejection is a fact of a writer's existence. Even people who choose to self-publish still experience rejection in the form of poor reviews, or simply being ignored in the marketplace. Those of us who submit to agents, or who submit short stories/non-fiction to magazines or websites, get tons of rejections. In one of the most surprising twitter interactions I've ever had, Neil Gaiman (an author I deeply admire), tweeted he was sad one of his poems was rejected for an anthology. I replied to Neil, saying I was shocked that a writer of his stature ever got rejected. He actually responded to me that "All writers get rejected. All of them."

Rejection hurts, but it's a part of being in any creative field, so instead of treating it like a tragedy, we need to learn how to use it. When you see rejection as feedback and let it prompt you to improve, rejection loses much of its sting and becomes a useful tool. There are plenty of ways to accomplish this, and here are some of my suggestions.
There are worse things than rejection--like getting stalked by a T-Rex on your vacation.

1. Give yourself time to mourn, but not much

It's okay to feel bad about being rejected. You might have loved the story/novel/article you wrote. Your writing group/mother/significant other might have loved it. But then you sent it into the world, and someone did NOT love it. That's hard, but it's also life. Let yourself feel bad for a day or so, but do NOT complain to the person who rejected you, beat yourself up, or makes any changes to your manuscript YET. Give it time to sink in, then take a deep breath and get to work (also, save all your drafts!).

2. Carefully Read Your Rejections for Feedback

It's true that not all editors or agents send feedback on a rejected manuscript. That's why it's encouraging and extremely helpful when they do. I'm not talking about form letter platitudes, of course, but actual information. Did they like your characters but find your plot dull? Was your writing polished enough? Look over their critiques very carefully, with an open mind and a clear head. Then give yourself a couple of days to think over what they said. Do you think they may be on to something? It may be one person's preference, but it may be their criticism is valid. Try to decide for yourself in a calm, thoughtful way.

It's also important to distinguish what's wrong with a story from someone's advice on how to fix it. It may be that you decide that even if their criticism is valid, you'd rather fix the problem in an entirely different way than the one they suggest. That's fine too--you are the writer, and it's ultimately your story.

*One note--if an agent or editor promises to give feedback on your query letter or first five pages (this seems to be becoming a popular thing for agents to do occasional--offer short query critiques), take them up on it! Even a few sentences from a professional can give you valuable insight.

3. Fix the Story (or use the critique to improve your next story)

Sometimes this is small changes, sometimes it's a total rewrite. Sometimes it may be you'd rather start a new project than fix an old one. That's a valid decision too. Whatever you decide, let the critique you've received help you improve your work. If an editor wants a more involved plot, try to think of one for your next novel/story. If they want more polished writing, read a book on writing well like On Becoming a Novelist by John Gardner or The First Five Pages by Noah Lukeman.

One last note--I realize that there are people on review sites who leave mean-spirited reviews just to troll authors. The best you can do is do ignore those people. Focus instead on reviewers who give you thoughtful critiques that indicate they've actually read your book. Likewise, if an agent or editor sends a form letter rejection, don't take it to heart. Plenty of books/stories are rejected for reasons that have nothing to do with the quality of the manuscript. 


  1. Very enjoyable, thank you for this treat

    1. You're welcome, I hope you find it helpful.

  2. This is great advice!! I've been rejected a fair few times now *sob* and I've learned to cope with it - saying that, even now that I've had a fair few acceptances aswell, the rejections do still have a bit of a sting!

    1. Yes! It never gets easy, but I think if you get past the rejection, you can appreciate the advice:)